Noiring LA: Mildred Pierce, The Reckless Moment, and Reinforcing Postwar Suburban Gender Roles

The Pierce's home in Glendale, CA

"Often like a ghost in the shadows, the mother haunts film noir," observed Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo in 2003. "She is mentioned but never seen, yet she leaves her traces throughout film noir. Paralleling the dichotomy of the bad omnipresent or bad absent mother, in film noir the mother is everywhere and nowhere."1 Yet, as the two critics note, a handful of film noirs placed mothers and women at their center, ultimately both pushing back against noir restraints, but still reinforcing domestic, gender, and racial normatives of the day. In two such films, "Mildred Pierce" and "The Reckless Moment," Los Angeles and its suburbs provide the backdrop for film noir's judgment on the role of … [Read more...]

“Let It Be”: The Replacements, Generation X, and Sexuality 30 Years Later

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"If they hadn't come along I think we would have to invent them somehow," impressively bearded writer Robert Voedisch told filmmakers in 2011’s Color Me Obsessed. Sprawling over two hours, the documentary captures the feelings of affection, disbelief, and for many fans in regard to the last few albums, despair, that the infamous Minneapolis postpunk band the Replacements inspired. Indeed, the level of reverence that fans hold for a band clearly defined by irreverence remains palpable. They were a 1980s Velvet Underground, notes one; they may have sold few records, but everyone who picked one up joined a band. “The great existential heroes of American Indie rock,” Titus Andronicus lead singer … [Read more...]

Beware of the Blond Woman: Gender, Sexuality and the State in Modern Germany

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Lola Lola, played by Marlene Dietrich in the 1930 film The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel), regales the cabaret audience with this advice: “Beware of blond women.” (Nimm dich in acht vor blonden Frauen.). As the first German “talkie” and with the definition of masculinity in question during the interwar years, it’s no surprise how The Blue Angel incorporates sound as a cinematic device to represent the “victim” of Lola’s gaze, Professor Rath. After meeting this strong-willed sex symbol, Rath’s voice devolves from a respectable, crowing rooster to the castrated whimper of a cuckold. Lola Lola typifies the modern woman, the “new woman,” who experienced greater opportunity and freedom as a wage … [Read more...]

Golden State Urbanity: 28 History Books That Get At The Heart of Metropolitan California

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For many Americans, the phrase “California history” sounds like an oxymoron. Born out of a Gold Rush and two World Wars, the Golden State, to easterners, has always seemed like the new kid on the block. Californians might have aided in such perceptions, notes the 1970s dean of West Coast literature, Joan Didion. “You might protest that no family has been in Sacramento Valley for anything approaching ‘always,’” she wrote, “But it is characteristic of Californians to speak grandly of the past as if it has simultaneously begun, tabula rasa, and reached a happy ending on the day the wagons started west.” For Didion, such depictions of the past cast melancholy over “those who participate in it,” … [Read more...]

White Racial Innocence Goes to War: Forrest Gump at 20

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1994—it wasn’t that long ago.  Or was it?  It was a time before iPhones, YouTube, Monica Lewinsky, WMDs, and Honey Boo-Boo.  The tech bubble was still a glimmer in Alan Greenspan’s eye.  It was in the Spring of that year that I remember seeing a trailer for a forthcoming Tom Hanks film with the unlikely title Forrest Gump.  I figured it was some weirdo prestige project that a big-name actor was doing for some indie cred, and would never, ever be a commercial success.  But a few months later, I witnessed a crowd of teary-eyed viewers streaming out of a screening of Forrest Gump, clutching Kleenexes.  Something was clearly going on. As it turns out, Tom Hanks’s portrayal of a Candidean … [Read more...]

Seventy Years Later: The Zoot Suit Riots and the Complexity of Youth Culture

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[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared under the Intersections column at KCET Departures, May 30, 2013.] In the film "American Me," Pedro Santana, fresh from having his devotion to wife Esperanza tattooed on his arm, prepares for a night on the town. His wife, accompanied by another couple, wades through Los Angeles streets on their way to meet Pedro, as a soundtrack of sensationalized news reports of zoot-suited thugs, dangerous riots, and retributions delivered by U.S. servicemen blare in the background. His friends exhibit a clear wariness regarding the evening's disruptive personality, but Pedro appears unconcerned, more focused on "walking the boulevard with his woman." … [Read more...]

Noiring L.A.: The Crimson Kimono and Asian American Sexuality in the Age of the Cold War

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"Crimson Kimono is really just a reversal of the old GI concept: 'Let's change our luck,'" Director Sam Fuller told interviewers. "That means let's go out and get some local talent, someone of a race or creed other than our own. The Japanese cop in Crimson Kimono is in a reverse position. He is involved with a white girl and wondering to himself, 'Does she want me for me or has she been dumped by some white guy and is trying to change her luck?'" 1 Certainly, in this way and in several others, Fuller's 1959 film took a very different approach from other film noir of the 1950s, and serves as useful text from which to consider changes to the genre and Southern California's racial … [Read more...]

Does Rape Have a Color? Woody Allen, R. Kelly, Bill Cosby and the Racial Politics of Sexual Abuse

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Like so many over the past weeks, I have been following the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen conflagration that re-exploded in the media on February 1 with Ms. Farrow’s open letter to the New York Times. In the letter, Farrow accuses Allen in graphic and heart-wrenching detail of sexually abusing her when she was seven years old. This information wasn’t new since Maureen Orth at Vanity Fair had covered the story extensively when it first broke in 1992, but Farrow’s letter triggered new interest in the case, even beyond that of Orth’s November 2013 follow-up interviews with the entire Farrow clan. Apparently unable to stay silent amidst the firestorm, Allen followed Farrow’s letter one week later … [Read more...]

“Looking” for Identity: Gender, Sexuality, and a Brief History of LGBT America

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When HBO premiered the first episode of its new series Looking in mid-January, the show, as noted by NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour “launched a 1,000 think pieces across the internet.” While Looking remains a compelling, if admittedly “low key” viewing experience, noted one critic, the show’s existence points to a more complicated and nuanced reality regarding 21st century gay identity.  How did we get here and how have ideas about homosexuality and identity been formed? The answer, one might argue, hinges on a complex mix of personal and group agency, popular culture and public discourse, and government, local and federal, regulation. As established by Josh Sides in his excellent 2010 work … [Read more...]

Eyes Wide Shut and the Paranoid Style in American Pop Culture

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What is it about Stanley Kubrick that makes people crazy? I was truly excited about the release of last year’s film Room 237—as a historian and Kubrick fan, the idea of an hour or two of deep interpretation of the themes and symbolism of his 1980 horror classic The Shining sounded delightful.  It would be like taking a cultural history or film studies class where all the insights of a semester’s discussions were distilled into one megacut. As it turned out, though, the film was more like a documentary about a cult or conspiracy theory, or simply the adherents of a weird fetish or hobby (say, a King of Kong for ersatz anthropologists).  Fairly ludicrous and elaborate inferences about … [Read more...]

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